the official newspaper of the false millenniumARNER'S ANGST
by Cheryl CohenAnyone who has been involved in a nasty divorce, separation or custody dispute has a good chance of being unjustly accused of child molestation especially if you're a man. It's easy enough; one anonymous phone call and the county's wheels of justice start rolling - all over him. Thousand of fathers' groups have sprung up all over the country in an effort to lend legal and emotional support to those who are fighting an uphill battle to win back child custody, jobs and reputation. But during that process, untold damage is incurred in some rather significant forms, not the least of which is everyone's right to Due Process. Out of his own battle with the present system, one local father is leading the fight to overhaul child abuse laws.
"I had to learn how to be a warrior in order to be a parent to my two children," said newspaper journalist Mark Arner, who recently went public about his own two-year battle with San Diego County's Child Protective Services.
While speaking (as a private citizen) to a packed room at a meeting of The Best Fathers' Group, Arner disclosed a horrifying story of groundless accusations that he had molested his own sons. He went on to share his discovery of the subsequent "secret" listing of his name on state and national lists of suspected of child abusers - in spite of his complete exoneration.
As he spoke, his eyes grew glassy, his voice hesitated with occasional deep breaths. He knew as he looked over the crowd of men hanging on his every word, that for most of them, a fight beyond comprehension was just beginning.
In October of 1997, Mark Arner was in the middle of a bitter custody battle over his two young boys. Upon returning home one evening after a long day at work, he saw business cards shoved in numerous door jambs of his 20-unit apartment complex from Protective Service Worker Srisuda Walsh.
Written on the cards was a message from Walsh, saying that she was investigating a child abuse allegation against a divorced father who had visitation with his son, and requested that the residents call her. (Arner was the only renter with young sons in his complex.)
The card in Arner's door remained there for over nine hours hard to miss as tenants had to pass his apartment to get to the laundry room. He called Walsh the next morning and agreed to meet with her immediately to straighten things out.
He gave permission for her to interview both sons that same day at school, and for her to interview their child psychologist. (Arner had been bringing the boys regularly to thwart off any fallout from the nasty separation and divorce with their mother.) Surely, Walsh would see that he was a concerned dad with his sons' welfare first and foremost in his life. He was anxious to prove his innocence and end the horrible misunderstanding.
Later that same day, Walsh called to let Arner in on what he already knew: he hadn't abused his kids. The psychologist had confirmed his assertion that he was a loving, law-abiding father. However, Walsh would not tell him who his accuser was, nor what she had told every neighbor she encountered in her search for him at his apartment complex the previous day.
And, no, she wouldn't issue any documents in writing showing he was cleared.
A child molester? It was unthinkable! Not exactly the reputation he desired to have with his neighbors, but he was denied the right to prove to them that he was falsely accused.
If the people he worked for ever found out, he wasn't sure what they'd do. And, there was his family and friends, not to mention how the accusation of child molestation could affect his credibility as a reporter.
He’d sit at civic meetings, shaken and stressed - trying to do his job, while mentally trying to piece the fraying ends of his life together.
He knew that on a sub-conscious level, perception was almost involuntary. The suggestion alone that he was a molester could cause doubt even within the most ardent friends.
How could this have happened? Arner surmised that it must have been his ex-wife who had placed the condemning call, but she denied it, and there never be a way to prove it.
If you want a newspaper reporter to get information, tell them they can't have it. The unanswered questions compelled him to submit a personal public records request to get his file. After two juvenile court hearings in which county counsel strongly objected to the request, Judge Hideo Chino finally allowed Arner to view the records. However, he was not to take possession of them or photocopy them. And again, the judge denied Arner any written letter stating the outcome of the investigation.
When Arner appeared for his appointment to review the records at county offices, they were not ready. When he returned an hour later, the clerks shoved a file toward him containing four unnumbered, mostly blank computer printouts. They insisted that was the entire file, but Arner knew better from his research.
He pressed on, requesting another hearing before the judge. Chino again allowed the viewing of all the records, but would not sanction the county for their ommission, nor reveal the name of Arner's accuser.
For some inexplicable reason, each time Arner appeared to view public or other records, the manager of the social services department, Yvonne Campbell, made him wait in an unemployment line for up to 30 minutes. Then, he'd be questioned by security about the contents of his pockets before being allowed to view the records.
Arner was convinced it was meant to intimidate, humiliate and discourage him from reviewing his records and complained. Judge Chino would not order it stopped, saying it was "up to the department."
Two days after the hearing, Arner learned from what had miraculously expanded into a 75-page file, that he had without notice, been listed as a suspected child abuser on a California Department of Justice database, and on the National Crime Information Computer.
Incredibly, there was nothing in the file to support the accusation again him; there was only evidence that he had done nothing to harm his boys. The file revealed that Walsh had covertly recorded the accusation to be "unsubstantiated, but not unfounded".
The word "unsubstantiated" is the one that automatically generates a criminal listing.
It seemed unfathomable to him that, although he was found innocent, he was put on such a list without his knowledge. That's where his name would remain unless he could disprove Walsh's clandestine judgment and clear his name.
Throughout all the lunch hours and vacation days spent on hearings, viewing records and issuing requests for them, Arner persevered. Eventually, his hurt and shock gave way to the undeniable urgency to receive justice.
The love and support received from his lovely new wife, Sydney, along with the rest of his family and friends propelled him into continuing the effort to help himself and others in his position. Arner's research experience (and decent pay) as a journalist enabled him to do what others may not have been able to do on their own.
The county was messin' with the wrong guy.
Arner, with the help of his friend/attorney, Bob Glaser, filed a claim against the Health Department using the name "Father A," alleging mishandling of the investigation and improperly given him a criminal listing. County counsel rejected the claim.
Six months later, Arner filed a 138-page lawsuit alleging negligence in handling the investigation and violation of Due Process by not notifying him of the listing. County counsel ignored the lawsuit, refusing repeated requests for a meeting to discuss settlement.
In June of 1999, Richard A. Williams, a prominent trial attorney, agreed to take over the case. He promptly filed a claim for $1.5 million in damages. This time, it wasn't ignored.
As if by magic, a review "without regard to the lawsuit" was ordered by the Senior Deputy County Counsel Deborah McCarthy. A county ombudsman and Walsh's general manager, Yvonne Campbell, determined that Walsh made a mistake and that the file should have been deemed "unfounded," the magic word which would clear Arner's name off of the Database of the Damned.
In a subsequent settlement hearing on October 1, 1999, Williams proved that the county had indeed violated Arner's constitutional rights to Due Process, as well as a state statute (which had coincidentally been signed into law on the very day Walsh's business card was crammed into Arner's door) because he had never been notified of the criminal listing.
Insult to injury
The judge said Arner could collect nothing in damages, nor could he recoup any of the more than $20,000 in attorney's fees and over 500 hours he'd expended because health workers enjoy an iron-clad immunity under state law. It would have to be proven that the employees had acted with malice. Even if Arner had been able to do that, he didn't have what the law considers damages, and the emotional trauma of being labeled and listed a child molester didn't count.
In other words, because he had been careful enough to keep his job, had not been denied any employment or been jailed because of the listing, he would get nada squat.
Then, in an astounding move, Campbell offered not to charge Arner for the county's court costs.
"It's not enough to show that health workers have made mistakes, committed perjury, falsified records or violated my constitutional rights," said Arner. "I had nothing wrong to anyone. I had merely submitted to their investigation and trusted their staff to judge me fairly. It was the county that betrayed my trust."
Arner asked for what he considered the least they could do: He wanted the county to apologize for its mistakes. Campbell refused to publicly apologize; Arner had to settle for the removal of his name from the database.
Arner met with several county officials in order to see how the process could be changed, at the request of Supervisor Ron Roberts, and provided them with several confidential documents related to his case for supporting documentation. The meeting evoked an interesting response.
In mid-October of 1999, Arner learned that Dr. Robert Ross, director of the Health and Human Services Agency for the county had contacted Arner's publisher to say he had misused his position as a journalist to receive special consideration. That telephone call prompted yet another investigation (this time by Arner's employer) to see if there was any wrong-doing.
Supervisor Roberts quickly fired off a letter to Arner's boss, denouncing Ross' action.
Somehow, Arner survived with his job intact.
In some correspondence, Ross characterized Arner's experience as "troubling, time-consuming and inconvenient." Arner uses very different adjectives to describe what happened to him, and countless other parents in his position who aren't even aware of the extent to which unfounded, anonymous accusations against them can go.
"I understand that child abuse allegations need to be investigated, but a system that works should have handled such a matter within a few weeks, not two years," Arner said in a response to Ross. "This 'regrettable' thing didn't happen in some far-away land. it was done by your staff, on your watch. You and Ms. Campbell seem to be unable to take ownership for your staff's mistakes, but I believe it is the first step needed to begin correcting the problem."
"A new culture needs to be established from the top down, where accuracy and detail are the hallmarks," said Arner. "You can't have poorly-trained people pouring over thousands of pages of records, arbitrarily assigning criminal referrals. Because, without Due Process, there is no justice."
To his credit, Dr. Ross has since agreed that perhaps its time to change CPS procedure, and will meet for the second time with The Best Fathers' Group on March 9.
Arner has started a petition drive aimed at strengthening the Due Process rights of people falsely accused of child abuse, by changing state laws. One of the key points is for the accused to get a noticed court hearing before being placed on the Child Abuse Central Index, or any other corresponding national law enforcement database.
Power in numbers
- The County of San Diego Department of Social Services - Children Services Bureau presently has 734 Child Protective Service workers, more than most police forces. In fact, the city of San Diego Police Department's civilian work force only numbered approximately 650 in 1998.
- No place on the Children's Services Hotline page of the county's Web site does it caution about the ramifications of false accusations of child abuse; it only gives the simple instructions on how to place the call.
- The county has a pamphlet with instructions on what to do if accused of child abuse, but they do not automatically issue it; it must be requested. There is an established procedure for finding out if your name is on the list, but it is not readily disclosed; one must ask.
- Of the CPS workers employed by the county, 78 percent are women. As national child abuse data shows that men have historically been deemed responsible for 90 percent of child sexual abuse, these numbers appear to be staggeringly gender-slanted.
- In San Diego County, there have roughly 90,000 allegations of varying forms of child abuse each year. Of those, over 14,000 were allegations of sexual child abuse. County data shows that only 250 to 300 cases have resulted in some form of actual social service intervention.
- Through a series of public records requests, Arner learned that the county of San Diego had added 32,852 names to the state DOJ list between 1994 and 1998. He is presently waiting for a full 20-year accounting of the names from San Diego County, but figures that based upon the average listing of 6,500 names per year, the list probably contains over 130,000 names.
- Throughout the state of California, there are probably more than one million, based upon the state's average of 250,000 listings every five years.
- According to an August 3, 1999 article in the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah's legislature passed laws requiring that 25,000 people whose names have been added to the list should be notified in writing.
- Notifications of listings are now being mailed out to the accused in San Diego County. However, they are sent after the fact and can omit critical information, such as the specific charge, or for which child.
- Many times, the parent is not even made aware of the investigation.
Mark, Sydney and the boys celebrate their storybook
costume-wedding (and of course, live happily ever after.)
For more information about the Best Fathers' Group, call 858/558-0700, or visit their Web site at http://www.thefathersgroup.com. Also, see Arner's own account of his ordeal on the COPSS Web site at http://www.copss.org/sd/ . For more information on Mark Arner's petition, call The Twist at 619/264-3153.
(This Web site is evolving - have patience. Meantime, For the rest of the site, click here)